Two days ago, the actor and director David Ferry posted a letter on Facebook and the Praxis Theatre website excoriating the city’s young — 35 and under — theatre practitioners for their alleged silence in response to the firing of Ken Gass, the influential long-time Artistic Director of the Factory Theatre. This letter prompted a large number of passionate responses from members of the city’s independent theatre community, too rich and varied in tone and content to summarize here. Two dominant themes emerged, though: a pervasive sense of disenfranchisement on the part of younger theatre artists, who feel that they have not received much support from the established not-for-profit professional theatre companies in Toronto and consequently feel somewhat indifferent to what is happening at the Factory Theatre; and a sense that the kind of theatre represented by those companies (all founded in the early 1970s) and their artistic directors has little to do with the kind of work theatre artists of the younger generations are engaged in — work that often requires them to play multiple roles, define themselves outside the traditional boundaries of Equity rules, and work that frequently fails to conform to the expectations of provincial or federal funding bodies. Aislinn Rose’s response to Ferry makes the latter case most eloquently.
I am fascinated by the entire debate, and I am glad that the discussion seems to be moving beyond a personnel issue (however disgracefully the Factory Theatre board of directors may have acted) to a much needed broader conversation about the state of professional theatre in Toronto. Within that broader context, I thought I’d raise two (somewhat related) issues that have always puzzled me about the city’s theatrical scene.
The first is simple, basic, and one I have been ranting about to everyone willing to listen for some time now: why are there so few young actors on our professional stages? With few exceptions, and if you’re lucky, it seems to take about ten years of unpaid labour for a new face to be considered worthy of a part in a major, paid (Equity or not), non-festival production likely to be reviewed in the press — at which point those actors in their 30s may be cast as teenagers or people in their early 20s. I don’t get to New York often enough, but I do manage to see a fair number of shows in London every year, and the situation there could not be more different. Young people, by and large, are played by young actors, sometimes still a little raw but almost always making up for what they lack in experience with energy and freshness. The current production of Laura Wade’s Posh, a Royal Court show now in the West End, is a case in point: the ten Oxford students that make up the bulk of the dramatis personae are almost all played by actors in their 20s, with a young-looking 32-year-old as the single exception; one cast member is still in theatre school. When do we ever see this sort of cast on our stages?
It’s not that there isn’t a wealth of young talent in the city. I’ve had the privilege of teaching some of them. But few of our Artistic Directors seem willing to take a chance on new faces, preferring instead to rely on the ability of older actors to impersonate youth. That’s not a system designed for development and growth. (And lest I be misunderstood, I’m not being ageist: I have no quarrel with plays full of grown-up, middle-aged, or old characters played by grown-up, middle-aged, or old actors. But casting those actors in roles ten to twenty years younger than their bodies is just adding insult to injury. It’s reverse ageism.)
The second issue is rather more complex. What pervades many of the responses to David Ferry’s letter, including Aislinn Rose’s, is a sense that being a “theatre artist” or “creating new work” means the production of wholly new shows — in collaboration with a writer, or by writing one’s own material, self-produced, possibly self-directed. As Michael Wheeler wrote some time ago, in a post on the Praxis Theatre website,
There are very few artists under 35 who categorize themselves solely as “actors”. We all have multiple identities now. Someone is a playwright-dancer-director, another artist is an actor-choreographer-writer, and I even know a stage manager-lighting designer-poet. These are the people creating art now. Most importantly, we are all producers. If you try to explain this to anyone at CAEA they look at you like you’re speaking gibberish. It’s like there are no check boxes to accommodate this reality so we’re just going to pretend it isn’t the case.
I find this an utterly baffling and quite limited notion of what “creating art” in the theatre means. But although it may be at odds with Equity thinking, it’s perhaps a little less at odds with the traditions of theatre-making in Toronto. It is telling, after all, that almost all the not-for-profit companies in the city have a mandate of staging new, predominantly Canadian work. With the exception of Soulpepper, none of Toronto’s theatres show much interest in plays written before the 1960s; and if recent developments at Soulpepper are a harbinger of things to come, plays older than 100 years will soon be a very rare breed again in the city.
As someone who grew up in Europe, I find this an almost unbelievably bizarre situation — and the idea that Toronto’s theatre is so insistently presentist because Stratford and Shaw (two festivals both at least a two-hour drive away) cover the market for “classical” theatre (such as Jesus Christ Superstar and His Girl Friday), leaving no audiences for such fare in the city itself seems nothing short of laughable.
For the most part, Toronto offers theatregoers an astonishingly limited theatrical canon. And the Soulpepper model, if anything, makes things worse. Why should there be an entire theatre devoted just to non-contemporary plays, after all? It’s a response to the predominance of companies that simply ignore anything written by past generations of dramatists, but it keeps the notion alive that such works are different, in a category by themselves, plays of the past, about the past. There is no need for such a vision. Nor is there any need for the division between new play development and the staging of old, even ancient drama. Again, London makes for instructive comparison (on a much larger scale, yes, but it’s the principle that matters). Take the National Theatre. The company stages new works — last year’s smash hits London Road and One Man, Two Guvnors, for instance (the latter admittedly an adaptation of an 18th-century play) — alongside ancient drama (this year, Antigone), “classical” plays (last year, Hamlet and Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness, this year Timon of Athens), and works of the more recent past (such as Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma this year). Nor is there anything unusual in this kind of repertory. The Old Vic, for instance, operates the same way, as does the Donmar Warehouse, as does the Almeida. Even a small, defiantly fringy and avant-garde company such as The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, devoted to producing international works in translation, does not restrict its canon chronologically, staging “classical” plays as well as those written in recent years. Lastly, such an approach to building a repertory has a very long tradition, going back at least to Elizabethan England. Theatres have always relied on a combination of revivals of old and very old plays, updated and altered where desirable, and brand new works. As a theatre historian, I’m relatively ignorant of developments after 1650 and beyond the British Isles, but for what it’s worth, I can’t readily think of a historical precedent for Toronto’s almost exclusive preoccupation with recent and current drama. (Almost all our theatres want to be the Royal Court. That wouldn’t work in London either).
But our theatres’ obsession with new plays doesn’t just seem strange to me from a historical perspective. After all, the very thing that’s unique about theatrical performance — its ephemerality — means that newness is built into the art form: every show is different every night, and certainly every production of a play offers a new, differently exciting, differently interesting (or differently boring) experience. Unlike film, theatre does not essentially depend on new scripts: it depends on new performances. It takes some effort to make theatre predictable, and the more predictable it becomes, the less true it is, arguably, to its nature. Now, admittedly, there is a strong tendency in the Anglo-American tradition to tame the stage’s anarchic or innovative qualities in performances of “classical” works, especially Shakespeare’s, and this tendency may be to blame for the conviction that in order to be “relevant” or speak to contemporary audiences, actors need to perform plays written within living memory. The very notion that “classical” drama must be staged, enacted, spoken, in a particular, regimented fashion is antithetical to the view of performance as taking place in the present, with the help of contemporary audiences with contemporary concerns and points of view. But there is no need to treat plays from past periods this way. If anything, with playwrights long dead, texts out of copyright, and performance practices long forgotten by all but theatre historians lucky enough to have access to reliable records (not me), old plays should be a modern acting company’s delight — well-written, well-crafted scripts ripe for exploration, transformation, and refashioning for modern audiences.
So why aren’t they? Why is our dramatic canon so massively restricted? In a city that can draw on so many national cultures and forms of heritage, where are the productions of Spanish golden age plays, or French comedies, or German Sturm und Drang, classical, or Romantic drama? Where are the Pirandellos or Brechts? Why does no one do English eighteenth-century drama? Why can’t we do Shaw in Toronto? Or, for that matter, why will no one touch the Greek or Roman classics? Aristophanes is still funny; Sophocles still devastating. (That’s just ticking the very obvious boxes — the kinds of plays regularly featured in the repertories of companies all over Europe; and yes, I’m being viciously Eurocentric in all this. There are still other worlds elsewhere!) There is a wealth of plays, hundreds of them, from hundreds of years of theatrical tradition, ripe for the choosing, only waiting to be combined in an interesting, challenging repertory with new works, in new contexts, staged in new ways by new actors using new techniques or technical equipment, seen by new audiences. And many of them have parts for young actors to boot. Why does Toronto have to live without all that? More to the point, how can a city supposedly as proud of its theatrical life as Toronto afford to cut itself off from the living history of theatre like that?
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